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Gilead | Themes



In biblical parlance, forgiveness is known as grace. One cannot earn it, because God gives it freely. In Section 16, John states, "Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing," meaning existence is the only requirement for God's grace. This truth is something John knows intellectually, but his personal journey in the novel is to come to terms with it emotionally in the case of his namesake, Jack Boughton. John finds it difficult to forgive Jack because he judges him to have a bad character based on the abandonment of his daughter and squandering a fatherhood John himself coveted. John also coveted the older Boughton's happiness in having lots of children, including Jack, and this nature to covet made him predisposed to perhaps judge Jack more harshly. Jack was christened as John's namesake in old Boughton's attempt at blessing John with an honorary son, but John did not appreciate it because he wanted the real thing.

In Section 15, John reveals one of his sermons was on the nature of forgiveness. In it, he has concluded that "grace is the great gift" of God. One half of the gift is to be forgiven, and the other half is that "we also can forgive" and "feel the will of God enacted through us." What is still holding John back from forgiving Jack is the fear that he intends to harm Lila and their son. This is something he suspects he could never forgive, no matter what.

When Jack comes by to speak with John privately, he asks if it seems right to not "bring a drop of water to those of us who languish in the flames." This analogy fits into Robinson's symbolism of fire being anger and water being forgiveness. It is Jack's way of asking John for his forgiveness, though he knows John's forgiveness is but a tiny fraction of the forgiveness he needs. Through his conversations with Jack, John realizes that Jack is sincerely remorseful, but it is not until he learns that Jack has a secret wife and son that he is able to put away his fear of Jack harming his own family. This allows him to finally let go of his resentment of Jack and forgive him, symbolized by the blessing he gives Jack before he leaves town. Thus, finding reconciliation with Jack and free of his burden, John is able to die in peace.


Close to death, John must face his own mortality and tend to his legacy, which for him is passing his spiritual lessons down to his young son. In Section 4, John muses that his spirituality gives him "imperishability" in a similar way that his letters will. He will miss his mortal life but he knows it is "mere apparition compared to what awaits us."

Having lost his first wife and child, John is only too aware of the transitory nature of mortal life, but in Section 14 John must face the bitter realization that life for other people will go on as usual after he is gone. He starts to notice people acting like he is too frail for normal everyday life, and treating him like he is already gone. He fears being replaced by another man in Lila and their son's life, and his worst fear is that man will be Jack. In Section 17, John again keenly feels his mortality. He compares the ways in which he felt lost before with this new experience of being on the edge of death and about to leave "the forgetful world behind [him] to trample ... everything [he] has ever cared for." In the end, having finished his letter to his son, he feels at peace and ready to face his death.


As a pastor, John has lived what everyone supposes is a very spiritual life. As John says in Section 1, as a man in the ministry, people "want you to be a little bit apart." A certain kind of decorum or holiness is expected. And yet, while in public "people change the subject when they see you coming," in private, they "tell you the most remarkable things." He claims seeing the "incandescence" of the soul of others is part of the blessing of being a minister, but being a man of God does not preclude him from sinning or making mistakes. Despite seeing most everything through his lens of spirituality, John still has a last lesson to learn about forgiveness and unconditional love.

In addition to making a case for spirituality through the witness of his own life and struggles, John defends his faith by debunking the idea that humans can prove the existence (or not) of God. Humans are incapable of fathoming the divine. "Proofs," he says, "are never sufficient ... because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp." Therefore, John suggests as Coleridge does that "Christianity is a life, not a doctrine." Humans are to live in appreciation of the grace of God that allows them to be part of the miracle of existence.

Unconditional Love

For John, unconditional love is closely related to his spirituality since he believes unconditional love is perfected in God. In Section 1, John muses he never felt at home in the world when he was "all alone," but once he has his wife and son in his life, he does. Their mere existence in his life is a miracle to him, an answer to a long, bitter prayer. He sees Lila and their son as a gift from God, and part of that gift is the understanding of how to love them unconditionally.

In Section 12, John claims it is "godlike to love the being of someone." Here he means that part of practicing unconditional love is delighting in the mere existence of another and having a "sense of the sacredness" of that person. Loving someone unconditionally is about seeing someone as God sees them, and "that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself."

But, whereas John finds it easy to love Lila and their son, finding unconditional love for a person he finds dishonorable, like Jack, is much more difficult. "Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing," John says in Section 16. It is something he understands and agrees with intellectually, but not emotionally. John has judged the manner of Jack's existence and disapproved of his actions when it is not his place to judge. The only prerequisite for qualifying for God's love and therefore unconditional love is that one exists. John seeks holiness, and therefore it is his final task in life to let go of his human judgment and treat Jack with the unconditional love and grace that God would show him.

Questions for Themes

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